Thinking Outside the Box: Shipping Container Homes

Written by Cody

New home trends are always popping up. From concrete countertops to herringbone wood floors, trends come, go and come again. While we constantly change the finishes, styles and layouts of what the modern home is, we do not often question how the shell that contains all these elements is formed.

But what if the shell was where you started, in easy to stack and assemble blocks already there for you to play with? That’s exactly the case with the latest construction trend: shipping containers.

If you have not seen a shipping container building before, it can take you by surprise. Either a single or stacked together for greater floor space, shipping containers are now being used as an alternate building option for homes and businesses all over the world.

A chic example of a home made of two containers, with lots of light and views of the outdoors.

The Benefits of Building with Shipping Containers

The general idea is getting around the standard timber frame building by using the shipping container as a sort of building block. The idea is that, by using the structural form of the container, you do away with the need for any exterior framing, as well as recycle a critical part of our modern commercial infrastructure.

Shipping containers are designed with exterior supports that allow them to withstand the weight of themselves plus their cargo while being stacked, a good start for making a building. These building blocks come in two main sizes, 20-foot and 40-foot long. Both have the same height and width of 8-foot by 8-foot. The smaller 20-foot version offers 160 feet of raw space, while the 40-foot doubles that to 320 square foot.

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Something very outside of the box. This building in Joshua tree used the rigid forms of the shipping containers in a very non-conventional way to create a dramatic form.

The price is also a big draw for shipping container homes. With smaller containers coming in around $1400 to $2800 and the larger versions coming in between $3500 to $4500, this can be a cheap way of getting floor space fast.

Another benefit of the shipping container is mobility. Instead of having to build on-site, containers can be pre-fabricated offsite and then assembled and finished on location. This is a plus for remote or hard-to-reach building sites where a traditional long build is cost prohibitive or not logistically possible.

Modern spaces. By using three containers side by side, this home accomplishes a spacious and grand feeling living room and kitchen.

Special Considerations

While this mode of construction may seem like the wave of the future, there are some things to keep in mind. The first thing to consider is that shipping containers are intended to ship things, not to live in. So, while $12,000 would get me the basic square footage of my current home at a much lower price that what I paid, it would be a pretty miserable space to live in just as it arrives.

This dramatic and luxurious home completely hides any hint of the original containers with the rich wood tones and dramatic roofline.

Design is another thing to keep in mind. The rigid lines and industrial materials of shipping containers lend themselves to a more modern aesthetic. You can get to a more rustic or traditional space, but it will take quite a bit of adding on.

Another thing to keep in mind is ceiling height. While the trend seems to be going toward a higher ceiling, the shipping container locks you in at a standard 8 feet. (And consider that you will lose some more once the interior is finished.) You can technically get that tall ceiling height if you stack containers vertically and open them up. But that will definitely require some careful engineering.

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This Airbnb property is a perfect example of retaining the design of the containers, down to the original paint job.

The Building Process

First off, you will need to work with a good builder and engineer to make sure that any modifications you want to make will be comfortable, stable and safe. While the containers are quite rigid on their own, taking out walls and adding windows and doors will change that structural integrity and may require some added support.

A more traditional take. This home uses wood and stone cladding to soften the commercial effect of the containers and give it a more conventional feel.

Another thing to keep in mind is that a shipping container is, in essence, a metal box. A metal box that will take on heat or get cold depending on the environment it is placed in. So, insulation is critical for keeping the interior spaces livable; it can be placed on the inside or outside of the container depending on how you execute the design.

When it comes to the overall design of the building, you can take a couple of approaches. You can embrace the container look, leaving as much of the original material on the outside as possible. Alternately, you can use the container as a base that is than clad or shielded with another material.

One of Lumens favorite local haunts, The Federalist, serves up delish pizza and an indoor/outdoor vibe through their use of shipping containers.

So, now you have another way of making your dream home a reality. Easy to use, yet with their own unique design challenges, shipping containers offer a range of solutions and new, creative living opportunities not seen before.

About the author



Cody Torgersrud is part of the sales team, which works directly with customers who call and email in. When not remodeling his 1950s bungalow, Cody enjoys refinishing vintage and antique furniture as well as binging on British TV.

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